Cultural and Spiritual Landscape
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Situation Summary

The latest move in taking war on terrorism to the terrorists finds soldiers being sent to Mauritania.

Mauritania bridges the “no-mans-land” between Africa’s light-skinned north and dark-skinned south. It, and other isolated “bridge” countries of the West African Sahel (Mali, Niger, Chad), have become the latest “soft spots” in which Al Qaida cells are finding refuge.

Major West African Peoples

The majority people of Mauritania are the Moors, or Maure, for whom Mauritania is named. These are descendants of original Berber inhabitants who, together with the descendants of their 15th century Arab conquerors and the descendants of their black African slaves, all speak one language – Hassani Arabic. It is the language of the Hassan tribe of Yemen. This dialect is very close to the classical Arabic of the Quran and quite distinct from Arabic spoken in the Mahgrib.

Roughly one third of Mauritanians live on coveted farm land along the Senegal River. These are black skinned people of the Tukulor, Fulbe, Wolof, Sonike, and Bambara tribes whose population centers lie outside of Mauritania.

A small minority are expatriates. Most are French, many are Korean, and the rest come from other European and African countries. Both French and Hassani Arabic are official national languages.

Major Ethnicities in Mauritania
People Name Language Est. Percent
of 2.6 mil. Population
White Moor Hassani Arabic 42% Berber/Arab
Black Moor Hassani Arabic 28% former slaves
Fulbe & Tukulor Pulaar 16% over 2 mil. in Senegal
Wolof Wolof 8% over 3 mil. in Senegal
Sonike Sonike 4% nearly 1 mil. in Mali
Bambara Bambara 1% nearly 3 mil. in Mali
Expatriates various 1% mostly French


Mauritania’s constitution stipulates that Islam is the national religion and Muslim law is the foundation for all civil affairs. Muslim schools provide most of the country’s education. Officially, Mauritanians follow the Maliki branch of Sunni theology. Unofficially, most Mauritanians follow pre-Islamic mystical beliefs accomodated by various Sufi cults which hold their primary allegiance.

There are no Bible translations and no gospel broadcasts in Hassani Arabic. There are no churches of native Mauritanians. Roman Catholics have the only recognized church, and its members are all foreigners – mostly French. A small group of expatriate Protestants meets unofficially in the national capital. The last Protestant mission agency to work officially in Mauritania withdrew in 1965.


Mauritania is one of the most impoverished nations on earth. Thirty percent of its children are malnourished. Infant mortality is 0.84%. Men usually die by the age of 54, women by 57. 63% of adults are illiterate. One in four households have television.

Drought struck the region hard in the 70s. Winds drove off top soil turning the once ranch friendly Sahel into Sahara desert and forcing a full third of the people who were nomadic herders into cities.

Race based discrimination abounds. Slavery was widely practiced as recently as 1960, and though it was outlawed again in 1980, “Jim Crow” style treatment persists. Though over half the population is black, these are linguistically and culturally divided. The black Moors speak Arabic and blend more smoothly with their former masters. Besides their different tribal tongues, the blacks along the Senegal River all speak French.